Summary (TLDR Version)

Describing itself as “a new and important entry in the civil rights literature,” I say, “nope.”

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

This means you might disagree with me, especially where I have it wrong.

A Reply To: Long, Demonakos, and Powell’s (2012)[2] The Silence of Our Friends

I’ve finished a heap of books lately and want to reply to them all, so I feel pressed for brevity more than usual.

This graphic novel, unfortunately, presents a son’s retelling of his father’s involvement (as a Civil Rights reporter) in Houston in 1968; unfortunate, because the entire gist at the heart of the historical situation depicted concerns this white reporter’s statement in court that helped exonerate black students from murder charges in the city. White saviour, &c.

The oddest thing concerns the reprise in the title, from Martin Luther King’s statement (paraphrased) that the era would be remembered not for the words of bad men but the appalling silence of good ones. This appalling silence makes an appearance in the story, when the white man (with supposedly exculpable circumstances) fails to speak up on behalf of his black friend. But this failing gets corrected by his statement on the stand—at least that’s how it seems.

I picked up this book hoping I would get a slice of Civil Rights history from the standpoint of the people most affected. Instead, the point of view remains 85% white and the book remains full of sentimental nostalgia, because the son of the reporter has written this book about his childhood. He does a good job, in spots, of bringing out the character of white suburbia in 1968, but the world doesn’t need another recitation of that, especially one that re-centres the Civil Rights through that lens.

Putting it another way, this book has too much silence of his black friends.

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Long, M., Demonakos, J., & Powell, N. (2012). The silence of our friends, pp. 1–202.

Introduction

I offer this essay in two parts (find part 1 here), and I would first make clear again what this essay won’t do.

It won’t ask what demons “are.”[1] It hazards nothing about any erotic or worldly “benefits” sometimes claimed for demonic possession.[2] It avoids speculation whether angelic possession occurs,[3] and neglects generally whether a demon—or a malevolent spirit of any sort—may enter a home or someone’s mind without prior permission from the victim.[4]

These issues, amply explored already on the Internet and in numberless human circles over the course of our species, beg their questions by assuming both a literal and a supernatural actuality for demons. For this reason, any dispute whether demons “are real” sidesteps one indisputable fact from the world: that people do sometimes perceive others as demon possessed.

People also make errors of judgment. And in La Barre’s (1984)[5] Muelos: A Stone-Age Superstition about Sexuality, he bluntly declares that the sheer age and duration of some cultural practice or belief—like a belief in demonic possession—only demonstrates that whole cultures, not just individuals, can at times suffer errors of judgment. It shows how a mere cultural consensus (about a belief) offers no argument for the belief’s rationality much less any justification for its continuance.

However, La Barre’s point amounts to question begging itself, precisely because these sorts of “irrational” beliefs have in fact effectively ordered the social world where they occur. To insist that only true beliefs could (much less should) effectively organise cultural activity seems itself already a variety of the sort of “true irrationality of belief” that La Barre condemns.

But even were La Barre perfectly correct, we should still have to deal with the lived reality and insistence of those who perceive demonic possession in others.[6] To put it less nicely: we would still have address in some way the craziness of that belief.[7] Thus, rather than engaging in a sterile digression whether or not a person’s or culture’s perception of demonic possession “is true” (much less whether demons “are real”), I would look instead at how that belief operates within culture; I would look at its social dynamic. Rather than debating what (belief in) demonic possession “is,” I would rather look at what (belief in) demonic possession “does”.

Inviting the Stranger

Another objection one might raise against the framework of possession arises from what I will call legitimate nonconformism. Imagine a culture (like our own) where prejudice or bigotry may condemn open expressions of homosexuality. Here, we see an authentic human expression of self (i.e., a sexuality) that gets denounced not as an inherent part of the person, as the moralising framework would contend, but as some sort of alien or outside presence. In this case, the moralising framework “gets it right” insofar as sexuality depends entirely upon identity, though this moralistic recognition in no way comes with a bed of roses: as the history of incarceration, confinement to insane asylums, involuntary physical or chemical castration, lynching, beatings, religious shunning and so-called aversion “therapy” all attest.

When a child comes out and the parent declares, “It’s a phase,” this tacitly resembles the framework of possession; this temporary madness or obsession shall pass. With the moralising framework at least, and very unfortunately, it at least has no illusions about the duration of this “aberration”—and accordingly it submits the spirit and body alike to grievous torture in an attempt to “manage” it by driving it so far into the background that it never rears its head again.

I call this sort of gender nonconformity a legitimate nonconformism because it introduces into the social world where the person lives something (1) that the culture cannot rightly deny but also (2) cannot live with acknowledging, or so it believes at the time. All cultures must necessarily have these legitimate nonconformisms, whatever they consist of in different societies. They needn’t always hinge on strictly human rights issues, e.g., homosexual identity within a culture that refuses to acknowledge that identity. A person who wants to gad about town naked—or (in not so bygone times)—a woman who wanted to found and operate her own business might meet immovable resistance from the surrounding culture.[8] In Fiddler on the Roof, the father Tevye finally hits the boundary of nonconformism when his daughter tries to marry outside of her faith. Even the most permissive culture would necessarily reflect some limitation, if only in an immovable prohibition on nonpermissiveness.

At this point, any tidy distinction between the possession and moralising framework gets muddled by the specifics of any example. If Tevye responds to his daughter as possessed (i.e., “what’s gotten into you?”), then he does her existential self a disservice by not crediting her impulses as her own, but rather the will of some interloper. At the same time, however, he does not sever completely his past relationship with her. He becomes confused and (patronisingly) worried, insofar as she has “foolishly” fallen under some influence that he, her father, would never fall for. But at the same time, even this condescension arises out of his past experience with her as he actually remembers it.

By contrast, if Tevye responds to his daughter in a moralising mode (“how dare you!”),[9] he at least acknowledges the fact that she has fallen in love with a Gentile, though this also means she disgusts him by doing so. In this moment, she transforms completely and ceases to be the daughter he has always known; hence the common statement in this kind of situation “you are dead to me”. If she “really” feels that way, the moralising framework contends, then good riddance she should go because she “was” never his daughter in the first place.

In many cases—again, consider the case of children who come out to their parents—the acknowledgment of “monstrosity” (nonconformism) that the moralising framework necessarily assumes will sometimes contain the future ground of rapprochement (between parent and child). While the moralising framework more or less completely destroys the previous relationship, with sufficient time (and perhaps also the very real loss of the child following a dramatic disowning), the parents’ longing for their child makes them “choke down” the fact of the child’s homosexuality (nonconformism).

Here we find the muddle again, because if the moralising perspective gets associated with an actual and real (and abrupt and sudden) transformation that shocks the witness to the core, the possessing framework denies that change to the Self, and so leaves the relationship temporarily in abeyance, but liable to return to “normal” any moment. If the moralising perspective returns to “how my child was,” even with a struggling acceptance of the “change,” then the possessing perspective maintains “how my child is,” from the outset, even with a recurrent threat of “change” from time to time.

Now, this context of parent and child brings issues into the picture that in a way both clarify and confuse things. The assumed pre-existing bond between a parent and child already deeply embeds any “threat of change” by the child in a situation where parents must almost helplessly and always, in the final analysis, come to terms with that change. In both cases, the parents find themselves driven by an immense desire to continue the relationship with their child, whatever that takes. So whether a moralising parent manages to make some kind of peace with the fact of their child’s nonconformism (so that the relationship continues), or some possession asserting parent can never stop muttering about “phases” or “demons” even as they interact healthily with their child, the end goal of relationship results in both cases.

By contrast, in situations of social nonconformism, i.e., between citizens of a culture who do not have the sort of supposed bond that a parent and her or his child do, we find almost nothing in such relationships between individuals that all but inevitably “forces” the conforming member of society (whether moralising or demon possessing) from ever “coming around” to accept the position of the nonconforming member.

I do not want to take a starry-eyed view of this, but let us consider a “mild” case first. At root, the moralising standpoint will say of the nonconformist, “You are not (what my/our culture recognises as) human. I will not have anything to do with you.” In this context, the nonconformist will live under the shadow of a social stigma (as those labelled “criminals” now do) and at perhaps the best will live out a marginal existence not necessarily (or at least hopefully) not under the conformist gaze. By contrast, the demon possessed point of view will publicly harass the nonconforming individual, asking what has gotten into them and why won’t they act right, &c. One will face an experience often that whatever they say cannot even reach the ears of those hearing, because the “demon” not the speaker gets taken as speaking. Rather than (preferentially) getting driven from the public sphere to the margins, one’s presence in the public sphere will continuously attract attention that feels pitying, condescending, or tediously well-intentioned. Of course, moralisers might direct this kind of talk at the nonconformist as well, but in these milder cases, we can contrast the solicitous but patronising nattering of those who see demons compared to the silence or disgust of those who moralise.

A more concrete example may help. For six years now, I have worn a tail every day. I do not assert that this kind of “article of clothing” strictly speaking embodies what I mean by a legitimate nonconformism, but it functions in the public imagination something like one. I mean, people both react and do not react to it. For those who don’t care either way we need say anything. I failed to anticipate when I started wearing the tail that some people might like it (and would say so), while others grant themselves the license to ask me, out of a kind of curiosity, why I wear the tail. I would rank these inquiries in the framework of demonic possession (“what’s gotten into you?”). Because I have a ready answer to the question, I can usually elicit an “ah, that makes sense” response from people, but their curiosity originates in a sense that a human being (me) has taken to acting strangely somehow. This curiosity places me as a real (if strange) object in the social world; it does not marginalize or make me disappear.

By contrast, I can only assume that some of the silences that accompany seeing the tail do not arise out of indifference. In six years, no one has ever mocked me to my face for wearing the tail, but I have definitely heard (more rarely than I might have anticipated) derisive laughter, almost invariably from small groups of people. These gestures create a sense of them/us and, especially because it involves a group (of them) and an individual (me), usually engenders a sense of disinvitation in the public sphere. No one has run me off, of course, but as an object of ridicule in their public eye, the probability (much less the plausibility) of engaging them in a conversation seems very small. And thus, this much more resembles the erasure of the individual that the moralising view supports.

Now, if we up the ante and consider less “mild” cases (i.e., where confinement gets deemed by a society as necessary), we wind up looking at people engaging in legitimate nonconformisms who become subject to quarantine (indefinitely, in the case of demonic possession, since they will never “recover” from their legitimate conformism except by suppressing their expression of it; or indefinitely, and most likely in conjunction with various “management” regimens like lobotomies, electroconvulsive-shock therapy, psychotropic medication, incarceration, five-point restraint, aversion therapy, &c, in the case of moralising). In the case of demonic possession, we may find a mob surrounding the nonconformist as she tries to live out her day in public, or we might find vigilante groups of moralisers going door to door to sniff out nonconformists.

A perhaps important difference here centres on the reification of the nonconformism. For the moraliser, the nonconformism has a literalized reality and therefore becomes something almost like a disease that others might contract. For example, in the history of homosexuality within England, despite some very draconian anti-sodomy laws, remarkably few cases were ever brought to the attention of the courts until the seventeenth century. Even then, with the emergence of molly houses (and what we would call the articulation of a “drag queen” identity for men), it still took some time before Queen Victoria felt compelled to pass even more draconian laws against homosexuality, which were subsequently vigorously prosecuted.

I would say we may speak of this as the reification of the idea of homosexuality in England. Previously, untold numbers of males buggered other males and little ever came of it. I want not to put the cart before the horse here. However homosexual behaviour gradually becomes an available homosexual identity remains obscure. Partly this involves social visibility, and at the time when the molly houses (i.e., gay brothels) started springing up, people living in the vicinity generally knew of them and imposed the moralistic tactic of marginalization. However, later this crystallization (of “homosexual identity”), its reification, provided the lightning rod for Queen Victoria’s extremely punitive laws. Pathologising homosexuality (in a psychiatric sense) involved one more, initially humanistic but ultimately even more problematic, gesture. One hardly exaggerates to say that in countless instances, torture resulted. Where “mere marginalization” did not suffice to keep the nonconformism sufficiently out of public view that Power could overlook it, then this elicited a dramatic and frequently horrific application of disciplinary regimes to the nonconforming body and spirit.

I align this with the moralising point of view, because the moralising point of view asserts, “You are not human. I will have nothing to do with you.” It severs the human connection, if not completely, then sufficiently so that nothing becomes disallowed in how one “manages” the nonconforming body. BY contrast, the demonically possessed body must also experience quarantine, if not lynching outright or exile, if the community feels safe in driving the violent and destructive body out. This involves risk, of course, since someone exiled might return—hence, extermination (as done with rabid dogs) seems more humane, both for the rabid individual and society alike.

All the same, where the moralising tendency tends also to reify the nonconformism into something like a disease that can spread (to other individuals), the one demon possessed does not so much carry this risk of infection. Many types of demons might exist, and even the one demon in question (who currently possesses someone) might get chased out only to take possession of someone else. But, curiously, the actually impersonal character of the affliction makes it more difficult for people or Power or societies to turn possession itself into a thing.

In general, a legitimate nonconformism in this context may simply analogize with the Other in the first place. I mean that to the extent that we identify “our” cultural behaviour as “human,” then the behaviour of “other people” (outside of our tribe) will lend itself to a description of “demonic” more than whatever bizarre behaviour an individual unregenerately gets up to. Perhaps this exposes even something human in “exile”—a punishment we no longer appreciate the terror of whatsoever. But if the cultural consensus will insist your nonconformism simply won’t play in this Peoria, then driving you out at least may compliment itself with the farewell, “Well, then, go find your people, wherever they are.”

I do not want to understate this. Taken to its logical conclusion, a culture informed by a framework of demonic possession will, in extreme cases, have exile and execution (these hardly differ in effect, ultimately, for the nonconformist) as necessary “tools” where quarantine over the course of a person’s lifetime becomes unfeasible. Not that one cannot experience a validity of life while under perpetual house arrest, in this extreme case, however, one exists as a pariah, untouchable—albeit one who might (even if no one really feels sanguine about it) recover.

One may weigh up in the calculus of sorrow whether tis more nobly existential or desirable to suffer the tortures of disciplinary moralising or risk the death or exile of the unendingly demon possessed. In social terms, the former strikes me as far more problematic, since it actually calls forth an entire apparatus and regime for dealing with something that does not exist to the extent that it believes it does. In the worst-case scenarios, like Orwell’s 1984, torture becomes the implement for disciplining away nonconformism; for the demon-possessed, they become the haunting of the house at the end of the street, itself the magical circle that confines and pins them down. In the prison and the mental asylum, one may live, but only when the gaze of it turns away; for those demon-possessed, culture erects a circle, but not an institution, around the ones that evade “correction”—a circle, a haunted house, assuredly that if they slip from its confines may call down their death and destruction, but that risk exists for the imprisoned as well, if not the even more terrible damnation of return to confinement.

But to leave behind these operatic situations, in the more day-to-day social tug-of-war involved in the confrontation between a culture and those embodying its legitimate nonconformisms, the paradigm of demonic possession reflects and embodies the notion, “You are human; what’s gotten into you?” Just as I may attempt to counter a sceptical curiosity about why I would wear a tail, and at least provide a comprehensible answer to people for why one might do that, one may similarly challenge a culture even on the point of these inadmissible nonconformisms. When African-Americans said, “Okay, no more fucking around; we want equality now” this met, as it had long met, with violent reprisals—death and exile remain “necessary” tools in the face of demonic possession. The nonconformism did not (in general) encounter “friendly curiosity” and getting across to that hostility the comprehensible answer why African-Americans had taken up “acting that way” rarely happened.

Conclusion

Ultimately, it seems that to view undesirable human behaviour in terms of complexes [demonic possession] rather than character defects—that is, as cognitive errors that originate not with what we identify as the ego or self of the person behaving badly—has far more desirable social consequences than the (moralising) alternative.

If you become demonically possessed, then not only your relationship to me but also your very humanity itself remains intact, however inexplicably interrupted from my point of view, whether we know one another already as friends or have just crossed paths as strangers. As a matter of social policy, those we feel compelled to quarantine as possessed would also therefore keep their humanity intact as well, and we will less likely subject them to horrific forms of “management”. Moreover, the infrequent, transitory, and impersonal character of demonic possession will inhibit not only the reification of possessed identities but therefore also the building of systems of disciplinary control to torture those identified and quarantined as “evil”. And lastly, in as much as the paradigm of possession serves as a check against the moralising and predatory extension of the exploitation of Power over those it would seek to control, we may understand why our current social structure dismisses demonic possession as a cranky superstition.

Endnotes

[1] Whether aliens, fallen angels, or “entities from another dimension, visitors from a spiritual plane or real flesh-and-blood animals” (from here).

[2] Whether from incubi, succubae, or any exciting and “new deviant compulsions to be hyper-sexual or to savage others sexually” (from here) or in the consequences claimed for pacts with infernal beings.

[3] Or how it differs from the demonic variety, but if you crave an argument, you may find a brief answer in this:

Is angelic possession possible? The answer is actually pretty simple. It is the explanation that is a bit more complex. And the answer is YES, Angels can take possession of a human – but only if it is ordered to them to do so by God. Without God’s Will, they cannot and would not engage in such an action. Also noteworthy, is the fact that unlike the demonic, Angels of God actually respect the will of mankind, whereas the demonic do not. For an Angel to take possession of a human without that persons will or the Will of God, it would be an offense against God, and therefore, they would simply never do this (from here).

[4] A premise that serves to lay the groundwork often enough for victim-blaming.

[5] La Barre, W. (1984). Muelos: a Stone Age superstition about sexuality: Columbia University Press.

[6] I say we must, though historically and currently we very often simply confine, incarcerate, or murder those we deem irremediable. Every culture will contest, explicitly or implicitly, what constitutes a consensus of mass belief—whether that means (for instance) believing in demons or declaring any belief in demons aberrant—while those who fall outside of the consensus will risk the confinement, incarceration, or murder mentioned above, or simply social shunning, which operates as tantamount to death. I myself have little patience for those intolerant monotheists who claim to believe in some form of YHVH and I feel as enthusiastic about addressing their “delusion” rationally on its own terms as psychiatrists do about coddling their deranged cognition of their mentally ill patients. A major difference here, of course: those who embrace the delusion of intolerant monotheism do so with the blessing of the dominant culture; most experiencers of mental illness fall instead under a condemnation of dominant culture as non-normative, i.e., ill.

[7] Again, if you think not, then remember society deals everywhere (in the US) with the craziness of intolerant monotheism (i.e., Judeo-Christianity).

[8] Sexual examples tend to most readily suggest themselves in this kind of category.

[9] Notice the change of punctuation between “what’s gotten into you” and “how dare you!” This neatly, if perhaps a bit too obscurely, signals a major difference between the possessing and moralizing frameworks.

Introduction

I offer this essay in two parts, and I would first make clear what this essay won’t do.

It won’t ask what demons “are.”[1] It hazards nothing about any erotic or worldly “benefits” sometimes claimed for demonic possession.[2] It avoids speculation whether angelic possession occurs,[3] and neglects generally whether a demon—or a malevolent spirit of any sort—may enter a home or someone’s mind without prior permission from the victim.[4]

These issues, amply explored already on the Internet and in numberless human circles over the course of our species, beg their questions by assuming both a literal and a supernatural actuality for demons. For this reason, any dispute whether demons “are real” sidesteps one indisputable fact from the world: that people do sometimes perceive others as demon possessed.

People also make errors of judgment. And in La Barre’s (1984)[5] Muelos: A Stone-Age Superstition about Sexuality, he bluntly declares that the sheer age and duration of some cultural practice or belief—like a belief in demonic possession—only demonstrates that whole cultures, not just individuals, can at times suffer errors of judgment. It shows how a mere cultural consensus (about a belief) offers no argument for the belief’s rationality much less any justification for its continuance.

However, La Barre’s point amounts to question begging itself, precisely because these sorts of “irrational” beliefs have in fact effectively ordered the social world where they occur. To insist that only true beliefs could (much less should) effectively organise cultural activity seems itself already a variety of the sort of “true irrationality of belief” that La Barre condemns.

But even were La Barre perfectly correct, we should still have to deal with the lived reality and insistence of those who perceive demonic possession in others.[6] To put it less nicely: we would still have address in some way the craziness of that belief.[7] Thus, rather than engaging in a sterile digression whether or not a person’s or culture’s perception of demonic possession “is true” (much less whether demons “are real”), I would look instead at how that belief operates within culture; I would look at its social dynamic. Rather than debating what (belief in) demonic possession “is,” I would rather look at what (belief in) demonic possession “does”.

A Framework for Demonic Possession

Jung’s (1911)[8] “On the Doctrine of Complexes” provides a helpful framework for doing this. I will add commentary in what follows to one particularly long, summary paragraph from Jung, but let me demonstrate in advance the relevance of this paragraph to demonic possession generally by citing what Jung adds at the end of that paragraph:

I may say here the superstition held by all races that hysterical and insane persons are “possessed” by demons is right in conception. These patients have, in fact, autonomous complexes, which at times completely destroy the self-control. The superstition is therefore justified, inasmuch as it denotes “possession,” because the complexes [that possess them] behave quite independently of the ego, and force upon it a quasi-foreign will (¶1352).

Jung’s description of the operation of what he calls a “complex” thus resembles or actually functions as what we typically call (at least mild cases of) demonic possession. In my commentary on the rest of Jung’s paragraph that follows, allow yourself also to hear “demon” wherever the word “complex” occurs; for instance, that a complex [a demon] interferes with one’s thinking because it takes over [possesses] the cognitive position of ego-consciousness:

This points … to the complex … [as] having a remarkable independence in the hierarchy of the psyche, so that one may compare the complex to revolting vassals in an empire. Researches have shown this independence is based upon an intense emotional tone—[i.e.,] the value of the affective elements of the complex—because the “affect” occupies in the constitution of the psyche a very independent place and may easily break through the self-control and self-intention of the individual. [9]

Two of the most important discoveries to follow from this identification of “complexes” involve the independence (autonomy) and the plurality of them within an individual’s psyche.

I conceive the complex to be a collection of imaginings, which, in consequence of [its] autonomy, is relatively independent of the central control of the consciousness, and at any moment liable to bend or cross the intentions of the individual.

Thus, a complex [a demon] might take over [or possess] one’s ego, which ego exists itself as simply one complex amongst a plurality of complexes: [10]

Especially in those states where the complex [a demon] temporarily replaces the ego, we see that a strong complex possesses all the characteristics of a separate personality. We are, therefore, justified in regarding a complex as somewhat like a small secondary mind, which deliberately (though unknown to consciousness) drives at certain intentions which are contrary to the conscious intentions of the individual (emphasis added).

Elsewhere, Jung elaborates more fully whence and why such complexes [demons] manifest out of the impenetrable darkness of the Unconscious, but we do not need these further mechanisms to examine what demonic possession “does” in culture.

In Praise of Demonic Possession

Jung’s position within psychology as a discipline readily allows incorrectly imagining an equation between “demonic possession” and “mental illness”.[11] The autonomy and especially the plurality of complexes [demons], however, radically changes the picture.

A most basic point to make: possession [by a complex, by a demon] may happen in completely non-pathological ways. Colloquially, we will say “what’s gotten into you,” which seems to draw attention less to any inexplicability of one’s behaviour and more to the fact that your behaviour seems out of character, that it doesn’t seem like you.

Usually, other people note this, but not always. For ourselves, we may notice at times how—no matter how determined we feel about something—we nonetheless find ourselves acting contrary to our desire or willing; very often, we notice only after the fact. People who want to quit smoking may often painfully experience this “two-mindedness” about seeming to want to quit while also thwarting that want. Or we simply rise with the sun, full of determination to do everything that needs doing, and at the end of the day, we fall back into our beds, unable to even remember what we did, much less what we failed to.

We can blame this as a failure of will on the part of our egos, but it seems inaccurate (i.e., it does not describe the actual human experience accurately) to say that “I” “didn’t really want” to quit smoking or that “I” “didn’t really mean to get everything done today.” I seriously want to quit smoking, so which “I” lit that last cigarette? We might say, “You’re of two minds about it,” but if we take that statement seriously, then we have to confront “who” has those “two” minds then?

Whether one judges this in a moral framework as some kind of laziness—as if lassitude or sloth were not themselves most challenging demons—the criticism jumps the shark and presumes a straightforwardness of solution where such self-evident solutions may in fact not rule. For instance, if someone fails to leap up from the earth to the surface of the moon, to then accuse them of not trying hard enough seems non sequitur.

But whether we blame Jung’s framework as a kind of “excuse-making” or not, its framing of the complexes as possession reflects within it not only a more accurate description of human experience but also a crucially human element that the moralising framework lacks, as I will show. But—to anticipate that point—since the moralising framework functions in these cases in a more inhumane (and thus, inhuman) way, this also makes it less socially desirable, along with being less accurate.

At root, this framework of demonic possession asserts that your bad acts do not originate out of your typical self, much less your best self. Such a view interprets your bad acts as things done by agents either external to you [i.e., demons] or autonomous and plural with respect to your own will [i.e., as another complex or complexes besides your ego]. By contrast, the moralising framework ascribes the bad acts, as evil and ill-will, expressly to your Self. No matter how well-behaved you’ve acted in the past, this eruption of “evil” from you finally exposes your true, evil colours. Rather than remaining a friend who has temporarily become beset by an egregious and alien presence [a demon], the moralising framework takes your sudden bad acts as a betrayal at best, if not proof that your “friendship” never had any real basis.

In addition, the framework of demonic possession presumes the possibility of your recovery. This possession by an alien presence, by definition temporary, can’t last indefinitely. Truly, it may require an expert’s intervention—an exorcism or depth psychological analysis—or it may spontaneously disappear on its own. Either way, the idea that it can only persist hopelessly and indefinitely runs wholly contrary not only to the framework of possession, but also our experiences of it. We get possessed by a mood, but later that mood goes away.

The moralising framework, by contrast, insists that bad act you exhibit now points to your very “nature” or “character”. And for all of the assertions that education or religion might amend “human nature or character,” vast swaths of the US population express considerable scepticism about the prospects of “rehabilitation”. And our current psychiatric models don’t generally presuppose to “cure” anyone but rather (and usually psychopharmacologically) to “manage” the person’s symptoms.

This “character” model of psychotherapy assumes that most one might hope for involves management of symptoms; once “madness” comes to roost, one won’t get rid of it.[12] In many (or most) Christian settings, the helpless and unregenerate unrighteousness of everyone positions salvation [recovery] as solely through the work of grace by the Divine, and then also showing its fruits only after the person’s death. Rather than viewing a “possessed” individual as occupied by something contrary to and overthrowing their will, they get seen as inherently broken and unsalvageable by human means, so that all we can do devolves, again, to managing the symptoms of that brokenness.[13] This placement of human beings beyond the pale of intervention, help, or hope seems not only radically heartless but also endlessly useful for those industries (e.g., religion and psychopharmacology) eager to ensure an unending pool of pilgrims and patients.

Between the moralising framework and the framework of demonic possession, then, we see that that the latter not only better preserves the dignity of the human being as a core value but also plays less automatically into those (religious and psychiatric) modes of social control imposed by Power on the population it wants to keep “manageable”. When we think of those who start acting “not like themselves” in our presence as “possessed” rather than “assholes,” we preserve our connectedness to the person and do not lose sight of all their other qualities that don’t dovetail with “asshole” at all.

Confining the Violent

Some will object that cases of “madness” (whether “mental illness” or “demonic possession”) can express themselves so violently or destructively within our human societies that we must confine them, for our safety and theirs.

In the first place, however, many cultures exhibit what we might (patronisingly) call a much greater “tolerance” for “mental illness.” We see in these societies a refusal to quarantine or sequester certain people for acting sometimes radically contrary to social norms.[14] To pick a most obvious (and admittedly “nonviolent”) example, hundreds of human cultures throughout history have not demonised[15] gender nonconformity.[16] I would wager in these more humanistic culture, we would find a higher incidence in the belief in demonic possession. Moreover, this does not mean they have no means for dealing with genuinely violent or destructive behaviours.

An analogy.

Contrary to what we get told in the media (and then subsequently imagine), the overwhelming number of people in prison do not actually require confinement, because they in no way pose the sort of danger to us claimed of them.[17] So also do the overwhelming number of people diagnosed as mentally ill require no confinement because they too pose nothing like the sort of danger to us claimed by the media (and popular imagination). In other words, before we even would think to address actually violent or destructive cases of mental illness (or criminality), we should not forget that this speaks only to a narrow portion of greater population being spoken of.

Moreover, we may see the case of prison how destructively the moralising framework operates. At one time, in most carceral systems (in the United States), indeterminate sentencing placed human beings in prison for some specified minimum period of time, with release from prison dependent upon meeting various “good behaviour” markers for parole.[18] Since then, and in most places and for most crimes, jurisdictions have replaced these indeterminate sentences and parole boards with (longer and longer) determinate sentences. Thus, where previously a “thief,” sentenced to “six months to life,” might get out in eight months if he or she showed sufficient improvement [i.e., if the demon departed], the new carceral regime deems the “criminal” (and in fact the “black male” in general) as inherently bad—as capable only of “management” not “improvement” or “rehabilitation”—so that behaviour in prison plays next to no role regarding when she or he will get out. Of course, this plays out as well what few mental hospitals remain as well, where the possibility of “recovery” gets replaced by a claimed necessity to “manage symptoms”. This radical detachment of any consequence to your behaviour while confined, as Arendt noted of the concentration camps in Nazi Germany, creates the most dehumanizing of conditions: the entire environment drums into your skull, “Nothing you do matters.”

So, however a society deals with the very real problem of behaviour deemed so violent or destructive that it requires confinement, it remains more humane and thus human to view those in confinement as temporarily afflicted rather than inherently “insane” or “criminal”. Or, to continue the example, we may think of the difference between a dog and a rabid dog. Nothing in what I’ve said pretends that irremediable conditions can never exist. Rather, I’ve suggested that the case of a rabid dog makes a misleading and deplorable template for how we should deal with all “problem” dogs. But just as the framework of demonic possession doesn’t shy away from confining (quarantining) certain violent or destructive victims of demon possession, we would lose nothing if we imagined even those irremediable conditions as demon possession as well. In fact, we would gain from doing so, if only in the sense that those who had dealings with the confined individual would never give up on the belief that, perhaps (however slim the chances), even this “hopeless” case would prove ultimately only temporary, like all of the rest. Once again, we see a more humane and thus human approach embodied and protected in the framework of possession, rather than the moralising framework.

Endnotes

[1] Whether aliens, fallen angels, or “entities from another dimension, visitors from a spiritual plane or real flesh-and-blood animals” (from here).

[2] Whether from incubi, succubae, or any exciting and “new deviant compulsions to be hyper-sexual or to savage others sexually” (from here) or in the consequences claimed for pacts with infernal beings.

[3] Or how it differs from the demonic variety, but if you crave an argument, you may find a brief answer in this:

Is angelic possession possible? The answer is actually pretty simple. It is the explanation that is a bit more complex. And the answer is YES, Angels can take possession of a human – but only if it is ordered to them to do so by God. Without God’s Will, they cannot and would not engage in such an action. Also noteworthy, is the fact that unlike the demonic, Angels of God actually respect the will of mankind, whereas the demonic do not. For an Angel to take possession of a human without that persons will or the Will of God, it would be an offense against God, and therefore, they would simply never do this (from here).

[4] A premise that serves to lay the groundwork often enough for victim-blaming.

[5] La Barre, W. (1984). Muelos: a Stone Age superstition about sexuality: Columbia University Press.

[6] I say we must, though historically and currently we very often simply confine, incarcerate, or murder those we deem irremediable. Every culture will contest, explicitly or implicitly, what constitutes a consensus of mass belief—whether that means (for instance) believing in demons or declaring any belief in demons aberrant—while those who fall outside of the consensus will risk the confinement, incarceration, or murder mentioned above, or simply social shunning, which operates as tantamount to death. I myself have little patience for those intolerant monotheists who claim to believe in some form of YHVH and I feel as enthusiastic about addressing their “delusion” rationally on its own terms as psychiatrists do about coddling their deranged cognition of their mentally ill patients. A major difference here, of course: those who embrace the delusion of intolerant monotheism do so with the blessing of the dominant culture; most experiencers of mental illness fall instead under a condemnation of dominant culture as non-normative, i.e., ill.

[7] Again, if you think not, then remember society deals everywhere (in the US) with the craziness of intolerant monotheism (i.e., Judeo-Christianity).

[8] Jung, CG (1911). On the doctrine of complexes. In CG Jung (1981). Experimental researches. (Vol. 2, Collected Works, 2nd ed., Trans. L. Stein & D. Riviere), pp. 598–604 . Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

[9] In the interests of quoting the entire passage, Jung adds here, “Faulty reproduction” [another aspect of the association experiment he and a colleague conducted] is also to be regarded as a sign of the complex, and this is theoretically interesting because it shows that even the moods associated with a complex are subject to certain exceptional conditions, that is, they are inclined to be quickly forgotten or replaced. The uncertainty of the subject towards the complex-associations is characteristic; they are to the individual either of an obsession-like stability, or they disappear totally from the memory, and may even cause false memories …”

[10] Peter Hammill, one of our great living troubadours, realizes this from another direction in his “The Unconscious Life” from his (1982) album Enter K:

I’m in command,
I’m in control,
I am the captain of my soul.
Still, I’m uncertain in one major role…
oh, I drift through the unconscious life,
shift through the unconscious life,
lift up my unconscious eyes:
beyond all normal pain and pleasure
we should treasure the unconscious life.
We’ve got our reasons for most things we do,
we could surely rationalise them through.
A false ring of confidence
would characterise us true -
oh, we’re deep in the unconscious life
asleep in the unconscious life,
peeping through unconscious eyes.
Beyond all normal pain and pleasure
we should treasure,
treasure the unconscious,
treasure the unconscious life.
Something makes me nervous,
something makes me twitch,
something makes me scratch that Pavlovian itch,
(Wonder what that is now…?)
Someone that I barely know must unpick the stitch
to unravel the unconscious life,
travel the unconscious life,
gather the unconscious eye…
far from shedding light on any motive
the candle is votive when it burns at both ends.
I’m not in command,
I’m out of control,
I am the Ship’s Boy of my soul….
Oh, we drift through the unconscious life,
shift through the unconscious life,
live through the unconscious life.

[11] Jung does not make this equation in any literal sense.

[12] Disregard, of course, that spontaneous recovery remains the most likely outcome for cases of “mental illness.” I mean that recovery from psychological (not psychiatric) experiences occurs more often by “doing nothing” than by undergoing treatment.

[13] Freud voiced this fucked up position when he declared the purpose of psychoanalysis as merely unbreaking human beings just enough so that they could function within society.

[14] I do not mean to suggest by this that within any such culture every single kind of behaviour must forever remain immune to calling down some wrath of interdiction, expulsion, or reprisal upon it, but only that we see often—such as Isaiah’s naked preaching in Jerusalem—a largesse toward behaviours we’d more quickly act against.

[15] Pun intended.

[16] But, in the first place, it remains unclear why anyone should think that viewing others as “possessed” must mean no social means would exist to protect against such periodic possession. From an economic standpoint, the temporary character of possession means more limited confinement and expense, except in the (much rarer) case of someone suffering from a condition that, in fact, never improves. Whatever the various rationales for menstrual taboos in different cultures around the world, they generally operate by imposing a temporary quarantine on the menstruating woman. Inasmuch as menstruating women get construed as extremely magical and therefore dangerous—and thus just as potentially socially dangerous as an uncontrolled “madman”—social technologies exist to quarantine this danger until the danger passes. Were the condition to persist indefinitely, presumably confinement would persist indefinitely.

[17] The greatest number of people in prison currently committed nonviolent drug offenses, if even that.

[18] This system, as we may still see to this day where indeterminate sentencing persists (e.g., in capital offenses, &c), permits various abuses. I don’t cite it to claim it works ideally but only to contrast its assumptions and premises compared to determine sentencing regimes.

Summary (TLDR Version)

Neil Gaiman : Alan Moore :: Nine Inch Nails : Skinny Puppy.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

This means you might disagree with me, especially where I have it wrong.

A Reply To: Gaiman, Kieth, Dringenberg, Jones III, Bachalo, Zulli, Parkhouse, Jones, Vess, Doran, and McKean’s (2006)[2] Absolute Sandman (volume 1)

In case you were imprisoned in the 1990s and missed it:

THE SANDMAN, written by New York Times best-selling author Neil Gaiman, was the most acclaimed comic book title of the 1990s. A rich blend of modern myth and dark fantasy in which contemporary fiction, historical drama and legend are seamlessly interwoven, THE SANDMAN is also widely considered one of the most original and artistically ambitious series of the modern age. By the time it concluded in 1996, it had made significant contributions to the artistic maturity of comic books and become a pop culture phenomenon in its own right.

I find that something consistently rubs me the wrong way with Gaiman’s writing—a wrongness usually spectacularly offset by the work of the illustrators involved. And if one may find any writer of comics or graphic novels who most consistently proves the maxim “the illustrations have more importance than the story” one could hardly think of a better example than Gaiman.

I don’t mean that he writes the worst stories that get elevated by compelling art—lots of schlock can’t get rescued by excellent art, and whatever’s rotten in the Denmark of Gaiman’s writing only very occasionally involves schlock.

I should add, I’ve gone out of my way lately to read more of Gaiman’s work precisely to see if it continuously irks me as it has previously (it does) and then to try to get at the root of why. And I realize as well that his enormous fan base (if sales mean anything) adore him in these and those ways, but just as the memory of losing your virginity to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” doesn’t mean that Jimmy Page therefore stands as the greatest guitarist ever, the emotional attachment to Sandman or other works by Gaiman doesn’t signal his warrant as more than actual exhibits.

One of the things that struck me, working my way through the 20 episodes in this book: very little happens over the course of 612 pages. Eventfulness, of course, transpires at times, but as event connects to event, it ultimately doesn’t build to much. Here, for instance, Dream spends several instalments just retrieving his three artefacts of power. Afterwards, he even mopes that he has nothing left to do. Indeed.

This exposes the fact that much of Gaiman’s narrative exists simply to fill some stipulated number of pages. Needing to supply 25 pages per title and ten titles over the course of whatever, he winds up providing what ultimately amounts to filler—typically gorgeously illustrated filler, but still filler.

I do find he has a knack for psychopathology and cruelty, though in the world of fiction (as also in the real world) narratives and solutions that riff on the deployment of violence, however artfully or vulgarly accomplished, from the most banal murder to any systematic genocide, always represent a path of least resistance. To say again, while taking this path of least resistance always can most readily occur—just as we might always resort to “nigger” when insulting a person of colour or “faggot” when insulting someone not heteronormatively aligned—the stylishness with which one resorts to this might vary greatly, but it remains the easiest and laziest of resorts, compared to more artful insults or (even more radically) a more cooperative solution to some narrative or problem.

By contrast, for instance, Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing articulates an amazing solution when he elects to “talk” to the plants, who would destroy the world. Ironically, this solution involves far less stress, strain, and effort than anything any other superhero might try to devise to solve such a threat;[3] diplomacy proves simpler than violence (war). But this counterfactual to Gaiman’s resort to psychopathic violence points more to his gratuitous duration of it.

In general, Gaiman seems to have nothing to say; he simply moves characters in the canon around to fill up the pages. An overstatement, though not much of one—it seems like he mails it in, or just sees some idle way to shuffle the pieces around.[4] The obvious and striking comparison of this with Moore’s work makes Gaiman’s seem all the more pre-fab and unsatisfying. Whatever one thinks of any particular work by Moore, filler and mailing it in seem never at issue.

Certainly, in Gaiman and McKean’s (1995)[5] The Tragical Comedy Or Comical Tragedy Of Mr Punch: A Romance, perhaps because of being liberated from any length requirement or obligation to make Batman appear for no good reason at all, he manages to tell a story unmarked by what makes Sandman seem ultimately such a waste of time. But we might still wonder how Sandman managed to achieve the success it did.

One effect of the culture wars in the Nineties in the United States entailed a culture-wide extension of relativism. To put it too succinctly, any ground of truth receded to such an extent that almost literally the only “truth” that anyone would accept as a ground centred on affective intensity; the rise of “extreme” as an adjective (extreme sports, extreme daily devotionals for men, extreme Doritos, extreme oatmeal—these are not satirical examples) signals how “affective intensity” becomes the only compelling or recognizable ground of truth, in a social sense. The further increase of anti-intellectualism, the erosion of argument that the Internet hastened at breakneck speed, media centralization into six gigacorporations, and the vast network of smoke and mirrors to provide endless “spin” on even the most inconsequential “fact” laid the groundwork for an animal mode of human existence where “life” comes to consist principally, if not solely, of moments of intense experience.

This phenomenon does not remain confined only to the graphic novel. Watch an action movie from thirty years ago and it seems now at simply a conventional drama’s pace In music, guitarist Jeff Loomis regularly piles more riffs (and quicker shifts between them) in one song than in entire metal albums of yore. Nor does this point to something like Toffler’s (1970)[6] Future Shock. In Toffler’s imagining of shorter and shorter generation gaps, he still assumed that each generation would generate some “collective knowledge”; a knowledge that the next generation, even if born only two years later, could no longer recognize as knowledge. Instead, imagery and event flashes by, presented with maximum emphasis, only to disappear without a trace: US news exemplifies this now, to a surreal degree.

Thus, the narrative aimlessness of Sandman (by design or by accident) reflects the Zeitgeist for when it appeared. It lingers in a narrative zone that implicitly has scope, concerning itself with creatures (the Endless) who transcend even gods in their purviews and powers, thus automatically leveraging something of intensity. And, of course, the art literally captures the spectacle of the spectacular.

Some degree of narrative arc sort of adheres, but only because the human creature automatically tries to make sense of sequences.[7] Mind you, a serial format as a genre tends to beg sequence of the sort we see in films or novels; rather like a book’s chapter, each instalment more or less demands the typical beginning, middle, and end. And in comics, as some people encountered for the first time watching TV’s X-Files, we often have some on-going major arc, inter-cut with one-offs.

Sandman has this, except that the normal disjointedness of the genre breaks down even further, not simply within episodes themselves, but even at the level of frames. Something like a sub-sequence appears that seems not very convincingly attached to what came before or after—except that the reader supplies the necessary sequence (sense-making). And this too perhaps added to the lustre of the title during an era when all semblance of any collective understanding outside of that kind of individualism Jung described half a century prior as pathological individualism. Leaving it more to the reader to determine the sense of the story perhaps marshals more investment in the experience of reading the story, rather than for the qualities (yay or nay) for the story itself. The “whoa-awesome” but transient intensity of the experience not only gets taken as unquestionably real—in a world-sea of claimed experiences and spin that seem ever vanishingly removed from establishing credibility at all—but it also invests the ego specifically in that particular object (as the source of the experience). And thus gets created the fan boy, to the delight of neoliberal capitalism.

Thus, rather like the experience of (male?) orgasm, which features maximal intensity but also a curious lack of body memory about it—so that one of necessity gets driven to re-experience another orgasm—the disconnected but locally intense experiences Sandman sets up to pursue buying the instalment, as the only way to have an unquestionably real experience again. That this seems masturbatory and that Sandman seems (pointlessly) masturbatory comes as little surprise then. Nor that Gaiman seems to practice this; as he wrote about pornography in response to Moore and Gebbie’s (2006)[8] Lost Girls, “It is one of the tropes of pure pornography that events are without consequence. No babies, no STDs, no trauma, no memories best left unexamined. Lost Girls, however, is all about consequences” (from here).

Sandman not so much, and nowhere all about consequences.

When Gaiman accesses more conventional material (as in Mr Punch) or the Midsummer Night’s Dream installment of Sandman his work (notwithstanding more fantastic art) more enables the sense-making capacity of the reader familiar with those pre-existing texts. The same holds (or should) for his dips into the comics canon, but not only should credit for making connections devolve to the reader, not the writer, a qualitative difference obtains between the sense made vis-à-vis Punch and Judy or Shakespeare and a comics universe. The latter, in a most general way, implicate a culture-wide and historical participation; every articulation within the comics canon implicates an only limited, specialised, and non-historical (but still sequential) participation.

Or to put it more plainly, it means less (socially speaking) in comics than in the life of culture. At this point in history, this sort of phenomenon shows itself more and more to exaggeration, as people’s personal investments in the vicissitudes of TV series belie more cultural loyalty than voting or community life. Just as one might say that the band Nine Inch Nails took everything authentic in the band Skinny Puppy and turned it inside out so that only a spectacular and vacuous shell remained, so Gaiman does for Moore’s accomplishment in comic narrative.

We needn’t punish the messenger for the message he delivers, but only rather for delivering it at all.

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Gaiman, N., Kieth, S., Dringenberg, M., Jones III, M., Bachalo, C., Zulli, M., Parkhouse, S., Jones, K., Vess, C., Doran, C., & McKean, D. (2006). The absolute sandman. (vol. 1). New York, NY: DC Comics., pp. 1–612.

[3] In fact, no one comes up with a suitable solution.

[4] If anything galls me particularly about this, it comes up when I think of the degree of hard work all of the artists put into the title. It seems to scant their effort, however much they got paid for the work.

[5] Gaiman, N., & McKean, D. (1995). The tragical comedy or comical tragedy of Mr Punch: a romance. 1st paperback ed. New York, N.Y.: Vertigo/DC Comics, pp. 1–96.

[6] Toffler, A. (1970). Future shock. Amereon Ltd., New York

[7] In this respect, the subtitle of Gaiman and McKean’s (1992) Signal to Noise, “how do you make sense of your life” takes this theme in a kind of literal sense.

[8] Moore, A., Gebbie, M., & Klein, M. (2006). Lost girls. Marietta, GA: Top Shelf

Summary (TLDR Version)

If you want to show a young girl masturbating and receiving oral sex in the name of depicting adolescent sexuality artistically, then this would seem to oblige you also to show her male partner’s erection and masturbation as well, or else it seems more like your interest hinges on prurience than artistic truth.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: L. Debeurme’s (2006) [2] Lucille

On the last page of this book, readers discover it comprises only part 1 of a (presumably two-part) work, the second being Debeurme’s soon-to-be-released Renée. Given that this next book introduces the titular and never previously mentioned character to the “series”, the sense of “continuation” comes off as pretty scant.[3] As such, it seems fair that people would take Lucille as a stand-alone work.

Moreover, while the ad-text for the book claims it

is more than a story about anorexia, alcoholism, and adolescence. It’s a story of love amidst a tragedy, full of the halting awkwardness of life and the operatic grandeur of teenage emotion

a reviewer remarks of it,

While I think the story was interesting, I feel like plots centered around misunderstood teenagers [are] a bit hackneyed. We have all seen it before in graphic novels, movies, TV, and literature. While I am always looking for people to put a new [spin] on it, Lucille does not do that.[4]

I mostly agree, especially where the ad-text on the book’s cover resorts to the disingenuous phrase, “Somehow two lonely misfits form an instant connection” (emphasis added). One can hardly take that somehow seriously, since nothing more profound than the convention of narrative ensures the two misfits will get together.

Other reviewers, of course, find the book and narrative arc compelling, but what all reviewers do not mention, and which the ad-text obscures behind the phrase “with the intoxicating boldness of youth, they journey together across Europe, discovering each other” (emphasis added)[5] involves their sexuality; specifically, the depiction of Arthur eating Lucille out. Later, he less visually graphically fucks her, and this follows after much earlier in the book where Lucille masturbates.

I put the matter bluntly so as not to permit the Lolita apologetics to immediately take over the discourse. And whatever pertinent discussion one might have about (the depiction of) adolescent sexuality, which certainly deserves discussion, one can also hardly ignore the ways that patriarchal discourse licenses certain varieties.

Woody Allen has previously and lately fallen hard for accusations of sexual impulses toward females too much younger. One might have seen it coming. In his movie Manhattan, he depicts an affair with a 17-year-old girl, and in his (hilarious) Love and Death, an Orthodox priest declares that the secret to happiness in life “is blond, 12-year-old girls, preferably two, if you can get them.” Nabokov’s Lolita, of course, artfully (and intentionally) provides all of the plausible deniability that US patriarchal culture requires if one would give voice to the sexual desire Allen failed to provide enough cover for. Debeurme similarly wallows in it here, I suggest.

But first, let me make clear: I have, as yet, refrained from passing moral judgment on this. Whether Nabokov got a boner writing his book—and he probably should have—I think he more deliberately, even wickedly, composed a trap to “out” patriarchal culture. Allen, by contrast, places the trap in Love and Death in a joke and in Manhattan puts it in a context where seventeen years old won’t seem “unreasonable” to most people (perhaps males especially). Meanwhile, the underwear kiss in Moonrise Kingdom or simply Team Edward and Team Jacob from Twilight show us other ways to (attempt to) encode the adult impulse toward youthful flesh.

It seems asinine on two levels to try to label this paedophilic. First, the clinical definition of paedophilia requires a preferential attraction to underage humans, and implied in this involves the continuum: the younger the youth, the fewer those who will have a less severe problem with it. The purse holders might not have allowed Allen to make Manhattan with a 15-year-old girl, and Nabokov’s text benefits immensely from not actually and visually making evident before the viewer’s eyes the object of H. Humbert’s infatuation. Mann’s Death in Venice benefits in the same way. But second, and perhaps much more importantly, we have with things like Team Jacob and Team Edward, Moonrise Kingdom, and the like a depiction, not an actuality—a figurative experience, not a literal one.

Now, it might make some (or many) uncomfortable to confront the fact of adolescent sexuality, much less to become aroused in its presence. Nonetheless, it seems wholly disingenuous to attempt to denounce all occurrences of this as pathological, less because it seems patently untrue, but more because such mountainous moralizing totally obscures what actually occurs in the discourse of culture.

So, again, I intend no heavy-handed moralizing about the graphic depictions of (female teenage) sexuality in Debeurme’s book—I reserve that for the disingenuous silence about it. However, one observation seems relevant here. Assume that Allen likes nubile young flesh, and that that has found expression at times in his films; for Debeurme, he specifically notes that Lucille can only get off when sexually fantasizing about an older, fat pig of a teacher, and in Debeurme’s next book, he moves this factor or theme front and centre: the titular heroine “becomes obsessed with a married jazz musician twice her age.” One hardly needs much feminist intelligence to tease out the various strands that can follow from this.

Whatever the merits or problematics of this, Debeurme notably elides male adolescent sexuality; more precisely, while Debeurme has several panels of Lucille in full frontal nudity, we have nothing of the sort with Arthur (her admirer and lover). On one hand, this makes Debeurme’s depiction seem less like an exploration of a theme and more simply a depiction of an interest (whether one decides a prurient one or not). But more significantly, as the feminists Heilbrun and Stimpson (1975) assert,[6] feminism has no automatic objection to works of art by and about men, so long as any claims in those works to speak for “humanity” in general actually do speak (1) to some literally human experience and (2) not simply a “male experience” generalized to “human experience”.

In Hemingway’s ghastly For Whom The Bell Tolls, a woman who had been sexually assaulted (and is currently under the protection of another woman) gets “handed off” to the male protagonist, and Hemingway proceeds to make this man’s kinder and gentler fucking bring about a healing in the woman. Penthouse fantasy this already seems, that he will stay in the area only three days, rather than entering into any kind of actual relationship or long-term interaction with the woman, only makes the specific healing magic of his penis more garish.

At first, Debeurme seems not to resort to anything quite so vacuous, but in fact the duration of Lucille’s and Arthur’s time together doesn’t seem to cover much time. In any case, Arthur attempts suicide (and winds up in a coma at the end of the book), so the arc Debeurme supplies analogizes with Hemingway’s: some gentle heterosexual vaginal contact (followed by the removal of the male doing that favour) at least potentially has magical, healing effects. One might also observe that this generous act (in both books) does not suffice for the males; they remain woefully traumatized.

Two paths thus fork in the garden of culture: path along a critique of the patriarchal license to exhibit nubile female sexuality in cultural works (like Nabokov, Debeurme, Allen, &c), which critique might become indignant about “pornography” or cast aspersions on the creators as “perverts” or whatnot, and another that objects to the general paucity of such “pornography” or “perversion” in cultural works as regards depictions of nubile male sexuality. I remember hearing that, at least at one time, the film industry prohibited full frontal male nudity, which prohibition Bertolucci spectacularly violated in one shot that tracks John Malkovich’s penis in The Sheltering Sky.

Whether any such prohibition exists (or ever did), one encounters the visual depiction of female genitals extremely more often than male genitals. And Debeurme’s book offers no exception. Consequently (as Heilbrun and Stimpson make clear) to pretend this book speaks to “adolescence” does not hold water. More accurately, this book depicts a male fantasy of adolescence (whether one insists the depiction seems prurient, or pruriently motivated, or not).

One way this really comes across concerns how Lucille visually transforms, sometimes in adjacent frames. On the one hand, the vicissitudes of her anorexia seem all over the place. At one point, she finds herself hospitalized, and then gets better, then worse. The issue here doesn’t involve whether Debeurme has “correctly” depicted the course of anorexia, but that Lucille’s “attractiveness” (a major theme of her psychology, as Debeurme presents it) seems visually all over the map as well. He does, at times, show us her naked body when in such a weakened state that she can’t even stand, but over the course of the same series of frames, Debeurme doesn’t draw her face as belying any gauntness whatsoever.

In part, this reads as if we see Lucille from Arthur’s point of view, but of course this becomes narratively untenable eventually, since we see her not from Arthur’s point of view most of the time; rather, it makes the gaze directed at her originate from Debeurme (and thus also the reader), therefore, even when Arthur occupies scenes with her.

Just as it seems gratuitous to accuse Debeurme (or Nabokov, or Allen) of “paedophilia” simply on the grounds of expressing in a work of fiction a tacit male privilege of patriarchy, i.e., the violation of young women and girls, it would seem equally non sequitur to rage against Lucille as child pornography.[7] The principal crime would, in any case, more involve good taste, since the patriarchal privilege of male sexual license effectively has no limit—rape, incest, confinement, abduction, no matter the age of the female, continue to go largely unchecked, so long as certain practices do not get into the public eye, at which point public opinion will have to make the usual disingenuous and condemnatory noise, up to and including actual criminal prosecution in sufficiently egregious cases.

It appears from the general reception to Debeurme’s book, given the practically universal silence around the fact that it contains an explicit depiction of Lucille masturbation and two sequences of Lucille and Arthur have sex, that he has managed to avoid an egregious case. He has successfully encoded the prurient interest of the content behind a plausible deniability, however we want to construe that. Certainly, if Paglia can credit oglers of Rafael’s David with paedophilic impulses—and if Joyce via Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man can disingenuously bracket out Eros from any appreciation of Art—then wrapping “child pornography” in the “operatic emotions” of adolescence has done enough to allow the oglers to go on unmolested.

But what rather introduces a crack into the armour of this plausible deniably concerns the absence of cock, Arthur’s specifically. Debeurme goes out of his way both to display Lucille’s genitals (and breasts) while keeping Arthur’s out of sight. Certainly, homosexual males in the twentieth century have noted the general absence of cock even in heterosexual (and thus seemingly universal) depictions of love stories—the prohibition noted above, if true, only confirming all the more the male bias behind the display of female genitals in film and not males’.

Partly I’d like to make a conspiracy of this—to make this a male mimicry of the invisibility of naked female genitals relative to males. What do I mean? Paglia (and others) note the blunt fact that when a male gets naked not only can he hide his junk, more tellingly perhaps, he cannot hide any sexual arousal. Women may leverage the reverse, while taking advantage of the indisputability of male arousal. Males might offset this disadvantage by prohibiting any disclosure of cock whatsoever. And so we might say the prohibition in film (if factual) originates there.

Like I said, I’d like to make a conspiracy of this, but it seems far more simply the case that the overwhelming predominance of males in filmmaking (gay or straight up to the advent of gay cinema) meant simply that no one wanted to film a cock. We might imagine as well that some meddler (male or female) might have argued that putting cock on the silver screen would permit women to see them, and that might have who knows what kind of untold consequences. It might arouse women to hysterical frenzies. Or to a grave displeasure once they discovered that what hubby packed back at home didn’t reach the maximum possible or even a national average.[8]

It seems more simply the case: Debeurme has no (sexual or prurient) interest in Arthur’s penis and so feels no compulsion (artistic or otherwise) to supply it. We might compare this to the underage penises and sexuality depicted in Hernandez’s (2014)[9] The Love Bunglers, but that makes for a different blog-post.

Beyond this, I leave it to others who have experienced anorexia to weigh in on the merits or failures of its depiction here—by this, I mean the psychological aspect of anorexia. In terms of a narrative theme, Debeurme paints Lucille as a self-perceived ugly duckling, whose cure (not unlike Maria in Hemingway’s novel mentioned above) seems merely one admirer willing to sexually touch her. I question how integrally Debeurme has combined these themes, of anorexia and Lucille’s desire for admiration.

Of course, obviously, in the real world these intertangle frequently, but from what I know of anorexia, it can disambiguate entirely from yearning for (romantic) attention entirely. And Debeurme (accidentally) supplies points in his book where anorexia seems an inessential, sometimes gratuitous, element in the story. I mean, for instance, the theme of sexual loneliness appears in the book before anorexia, and the way he draws Lucille inconsistently presents her, even when she has nearly died from anorexia. Again, his gaze seems more to compel him to draw her in a more idealized way at times, taking us into that eighteenth and nineteenth male authorial world where holy halos of light would descend sometimes on consumptives; at a time when Poe could insist that the most compelling narrative centres on the death of a beautiful woman.

It doesn’t seem to take much effort to sense the Othering going on in these examples, the masculinist version of Orientalizing that makes “woman” an object both of pity and lust, something in need of a heroic rescue on the one hand that also has no permission to decline the hero’s request for a very particular reward. In this light, we might understand Arthur’s otherwise absurdly unmotivated suicide attempt. The ad-text on the back of the book might file it under the operatic emotions of adolescence, but one might similarly file it away as Debeurme eliminating a rival for Lucille, as it were.

A silly proposal, of course, because just as people labor under the “widespread and mistaken belief that racial animus is necessary for the creation and maintenance of racialized systems of social control” (178),[10] no jealous libido must exist for the creation and maintenance of patriarchal systems of narrative control. We might just as readily insist the “reader” prompts Arthur’s self-removal from the narrative, on the grounds that Debeurme merely expressed the Zeitgeist (or the market’s forces) by doing so.

The emphasis of the gesture in any case centers on Lucille’s greater abandonment (now alone and in Italy) apart from whatever angst or justification Arthur might offer. This makes his suicide attempt more a contrivance than an actual turn of the plot, so in the same way it seems that Lucille’s anorexia serves more as a device to make her beleaguered and beset, rather than an actual factor in her fate. In short, whether for Debeurme or the reader, the anorexia functions to make Lucille more vulnerable (to a predatory gaze). We may compare, for instance, the fact that Arthur has OCD; or, more accurately, he gets shown depicting compulsiveness (specifically, he counts things) but not only does this have nothing like the hugely destructive effects that Lucille’s “mental condition” does, it also manifests as a point of interest that builds up Arthur’s depiction, in contrast to the “disease” exhibited by Lucille. His “mental illness” makes him interesting; hers gets used to make her pitiful.

I suspect, for these reasons, this book would more often appeal to males, in the same way that many madwomen in attics in any number of male-authored books (and movies) more serve the end of gratifying the male gaze, rather than telling any authentic story of female experience. Again to point to Heilbrun and Stimpson, when a book purports to depict a “human” experience but does so too exclusively through a “male” lens, then this justifies feminism calling such a book out and examining more closely whatever (deeper)motivation resides within it.

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Debeurme, L. (2006). Lucille (trans. E. Gauvin). Portland, OR: Top Shelf., pp. 1–544.

[3] Summaries for both books run:

LUCILLE: Winner of the Rene Goscinny Prize! With Lucille, Ludovic Debeurme takes on the difficult world of adolescence, following the life of a young anorexic woman and the difficult relationships she has with others, who have significant problems of their own. Influenced by psychoanalysis and the exploration of dreams, Debeurme explores life and fantasies with elegant clean graphics and a profound love of the games of childhood.

RENÉE: French graphic novelist Ludovic Debeurme returns with a devastating sequel to his prize-winning graphic novel LUCILLE. While Lucille moves back in with her overbearing mother and Arthur serves time in prison for murder, new character Renee becomes obsessed with a married jazz musician twice her age. Debeurme’s haunting border-less panels follow these three lovers between dreams and reality, twining their stories together into a poignant and universal search for love.

[4] The context for this comment from the review runs:

The graphic novel follows Lucille who is a troubled anorexic teen with few friends. She struggles with her relationship with her mother and often feels alone in the world. Her only confidante is an older woman in the geriatric unit of the hospital. At first, it seems that she is just your average conflicted adolescent. However, it becomes clear that she is suffering from numerous issues that are rooted in her unhappiness for herself. The second main character in the graphic novel is Arthur who is also a troubled youth. We first meet him when he is trying to convince one of his peers to sell his soul to Satan in exchange for a date with a girl and good grades. It is soon revealed to the reader that Arthur is dysfunctional because of his father’s alcoholism and rage. Though Arthur loves his father, he is pained by his father’s violent actions. Of course Arthur and Lucille meet and they are able to find in each other the love and acceptance that no one has shown them. That is until they journey out on their own and realize that the grown-up world may be even less forgiving than their adolescent world.

While I think the story was interesting, I feel like plots centered around misunderstood teenagers is a bit hackneyed. We have all seen it before in graphic novels, movies, TV, and literature. While I am always looking for people to put a new pin on it, “Lucille” does not do that. Additionally, I felt like the characters were beyond depressing. I love dark stories and crave unhappy characters in my novels. Yet, this went even a bit too far for me! I typically love simplistic graphics when reading a serious novel. Unfortunately, these illustrations seemed to make the story even more drab and depressing. Granted, the final page states that it is the end of part 1; therefore, one can assume that there will be multiple parts to this story. I hope that the future parts are a bit more developed than this installment and that the author turns away from the clichéd plot of the poor outcast kids finding each other. Still, if there is a part two…I doubt I will pick it up.

[5] To say they journey across Europe with the intoxicating boldness of youth frames things too hyperbolically, since they only go from France to Italy. One expects, from “intoxicating boldness” a rather more wide-ranging and audacious trip.

[6] Heilbrun, C, & Stimpson, C. (1975). Theories of feministic criticism: a dialogue. In J. Donovan (ed.). Feminist literary criticism: explorations in theory (2nd ed.), pp. 61–73. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.

[7] Whatever rules or laws exist about the depiction of female masturbation by 16-year-olds on France, or oral sex between teenagers.

[8] Men too might suffer a similar shock and humiliation from a too unfavourable comparison.

[9] Hernandez, J. (2014). The love bunglers. Seattle, Washington, USA: Fantagraphics Books, Inc.

[10] Alexander, M. (2012). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness: The New Press

Summary (TLDR Version)

Between death and a fate worse than death, which would you choose.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Gaiman, McKean, & Klein’s (2012) [2] Black Orchid

I often start in on books using claims made in the promo or ad text on the back to illustrate how wide of those claims there the book actually goes. In its own way, this makes my reply sometimes as much about how the book gets received as the book itself, some might say unfairly.

In the present case, by contrast, if I start with Mikal Gilmore’s[3] introduction to Black Orchid, it may in fact become the sole and only focus of this reply. With graphic novels (books of fiction in general) I tend to avoid introductions, because they often have the effect (intended or not) of framing how you should read the book. Here, Gilmore announces, “the tale you are about to read begins in violence … but in this tale, something unanticipated happens” (4).

His major claim for the book, in fact, consists of insisting it amounts to a game-changer for the genre. This certainly seems valid for McKean’s contribution, although the work here falls short of his subsequent work, but whether the story deserves such praise remains far more doubtful. Especially in the terms that Gilmore states.

To begin with, he makes a great deal of the fact that the heroine gets killed at the outset, prefaced by her murderer declaring, “Hey, you know something? I’ve read the comics … I’m not going to lock you up in the basement before interrogating you … then leave you alone to escape. That stuff is so dub. But you know what I am going to do? I’m going to kill you. Now” (4). He ignores two major details here. First, the murderer first shoots Black Orchid in the head, but this does not kill her because, as he says, while “our data files on you are pretty thin on hard facts, … they do claim you’ve got some kind of bullet proof body” (14). So then he burns her alive and also blows up the top of the building. Second, this only kills one body the Black Orchid has; her consciousness, or something like it, regrows in another body.

So, in point of fact, contrary to Gilmore’s claim, the villain does not kill Black Orchid—or, we might say even more precisely, to kill Black Orchid involves more than the usual. Certainly, Gaiman announces don’t expect the expected by providing a scene like this at the outset. But just like Alan Moore’s swamp thing, which provides at least one of the obvious backdrops for Gaiman’s book, the scene does less to change the comic genre than to orient the reader (in this case) to the tacit immortality of the heroine.

Having apparently misread the opening, Gilmore says:

Either way, BLACK ORCHID works against all these conventions of violence: it begins in the horror of reality and its works its way towards a lovely dreamlike end that is no less powerful or hard-hitting for all its fable-style grace. As a result, BLACK ORCHID is the first major work of comic book literature that uses violence as a critique of the uses of violence (6).

That he calls this the “first major work of comic book literature” to pursue this theme suggests that others have pursued it, albeit in “minor” form. So we would have to wonder why Black Orchid deserves credit as the first, especially when Moore’s Swamp Thing has already (more than once) demonstrated that endings other than violence may solve the conventional villain-crisis of comic books. This happens, for instance, immediately with the story arc of Jason Woodrue, who has hijacked the world power of all plant life to destroy mammalian life on the planet. Swamp Thing literally asks the plants to stop their destruction (explaining that if all mammalian life were dead, plant life would die off as well). Moore also sets up this resolution by surveying the many, many powers that other superheroes have, showing how none of them can intervene into this kind of world-destruction, and so it makes the simplicity and elegance of the solution to the crisis that he (and Swamp Thing) articulate all the more amazing.

So, the solution of nonviolence already has a spectacular representation. But even in the present case, Gilmore seems to fatally misunderstand what he reads. Confronted by the proponents of violence in her sanctuary of nonviolence, Black Orchid does not respond with retributive violence when a human gets killed there (expressly against her wishes), but she also explicitly warns her opponents if his forces ever interfere with her again she will retaliate. He replies, “Sure. You’re the one who’s so down on violence!” and she replies, “I didn’t mention violence. But if he persists … I will find whatever it is that he loves … and I will take it away from him” (152).

She promises a quid pro quo, but it will not come in the form of violence, which in this book generally means death outright. Why Gilmore thinks this marks a game-changer, when virtually all comic book heroes, even a thoroughly violent one like Batman, has specifically and on principle not killed bad guys, seems baffling. The Joker seems to have endlessly enjoyed tormenting Batman with this point, and certainly Arkham Asylum, as perhaps the most laxly run containment facility ever, similarly serves to make the heroes’ refusals to kill (once and for all) their problematic villains probably the single-most important contribution of comic literature in general to the world.

Meanwhile, Gilmore seems to miss entirely the substance of Black Orchid’s threat: most succinctly, that one may suffer fates worse than death—fates suffered, in fact, by everyone in Arkham Asylum. One may say, precisely, that what containment in Arkham inflicts amounts to a denial of what the villain loves: the freedom to torment others and cause mayhem, &c. And since those in the asylum spend a great deal of time escaping, we may assume they don’t much enjoy their confinement.

Similarly, Black Orchid promises retaliation by taking away what others love—even if what they love amounts to power, opportunities for cruelty, circumstances to practice the fine art of sexual psychopathy, &c. Thus, the eschewal of (the violence of) death doesn’t come with anything resembling the truly radical solution Swamp Thing arrived at: to speak to the interests of those who plan to destroy the world.

One may insist that you can’t simply talk to the Joker or Poison, &c. First, let me say that heroes need villains, so making villains irredeemably immune to any form of rationality, therapy, or even alternative satisfaction to whatever mania inflicts them first and foremost serves the aims of an on-going narrative. But to insist on this absolutely impenetrable character tries to argue—or at least provides an image of—some theoretically imaginary or real limit to the power of human speech. Some people want to imagine that some people remain forever beyond the pale, and this simply serves those arguments of power that want to incarcerate or contain people—and thereby inflict fates worse than death upon them.

It points to the limits of our willingness, not necessarily our capacity, to redeem people from “madness” or “criminality”. It underscores our laziness, even if it also points to a woeful lack of resources provided to support the effort to reach those who suffer “madness” or “criminality”. And in a nation that has 2.2 million people in prison and where the construction of the “black male” as inherently criminal has wide social cache—most unfortunately amongst police in our police departments—the idea that retaliation (whether in the typical form of murder/death or in a heroic confinement to an institution) hardly amounts to a desirable social response. Swamp Thing’s “talk to them,” admittedly in a fantasy setting and done by a character very close to a deity, nonetheless provides an alternative image that seems far more worth striving for.

Black Orchid’s refusal of violence offers nothing more than a standard super-hero obligation; her substitution of retaliation does not necessarily mark any sort of humanistic or progressive advance, especially when confinement in someplace like Arkham Asylum serves as the major symbol of what “I won’t kill you” looks like and promises. Moreover, Gaiman’s subsequent demonstration of a considerable enthusiasm and knack for (sexual) psychopathology makes this supposedly progressive avoidance of violence less convincing. As Sandman and other texts make clear, he wallows adroitly in the horrific—and the “solution” promised here by Black Orchid amounts to a more horrible threat than death.

As such, it seems more that Gaiman articulates a way for super-heroes to inflict greater punishment and cruelty than simply murdering their opponents. Black Orchid herself has lived this horror herself, having suffered “death” (in quotation marks) at the outset. She ultimately arrives at a place of peace (her own Heaven), and this presents an image of hope (“where there is life, there’s hope”), yes, but not for those she inflicts retaliation upon.

Whatever complicated thematic unravelling this might lead to (in this book or in the comic genre generally), the major gesture here seems more akin to, “Silly mortal, you thought death was the worst that could happen to you?” In Sandman, Death certainly causes less agony and mayhem than Dream or Desire. Whatever shift Gaiman affects here, it seems to have far less to do with any structural change to the genre as Gilmore claims; such a remark applies more to Moore’s imaginative breakthrough in addressing rationality to plants. At most, all Gaiman has done amounts to pulling back the veil on the (im)polite fiction that permits super-heroes (and us) to pat ourselves on the back for torturing those we deem irredeemable.

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Gaiman, N., McKean, D., & Klein, T. (2012). Black Orchid. Deluxe ed. New York, N.Y: DC Comics/Vertigo., pp. 1–160.

[3] A senior writer at Rolling Stone, the introduction assures me.

Summary (TLDR Version)

“Given the right conditions, the impossible is always possible”; this series still seeks those right conditions.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: S. Oliver, R. Rodriguez, R. Renzi’s (2014)[2] FBP : Federal Bureau of Physics (vol. 1: The Paradigm Shift)

I forever feel disinclined to cite ad-text about what a book (in this case a graphic novel that collects the first seven issues of FBP) claims for its content, but it still seems a kind of place to start for approaching a book when addressing readers (you) who’ve perhaps not read the book; so:

Wormholes in your kitchen. Gravity failures at school. Quantum tornadoes tearing through the Midwest. As with all natural disasters, people do what they always do: They adapt and survive. And if things get really bad, the Federal Bureau of Physics (FBP) is only a call away. FBP: Federal Bureau of Physics is the story of Adam Hardy: Young, brash and smart, he’s a rising star at the FBP, but when a gravity failure leads to the creation of an alternate dimension known as a “BubbleVerse,” Adam is sent on a rescue mission and finds his skills and abilities pushed to their limits when he discovers his partner has a different agenda… Collects issues #1-7

More succinctly: imagine Ghostbusters, but with anomalous physics (not anomalous spirits) posing the main threats faced by the Bureau.

I find three things in particular noteworthy in this series, each of which also winds up with a serious downside: an unusual characterization, the potential revolution that altering time and space portends, and a different emphasis (sometimes) within the series’ “boy fiction”.

Adam Hardy: Palestinian

To address the most straightforward of these: the authors make the central character Palestinian—a gesture potentially radical and certainly perspicacious—but they leave him named Adam Hardy (presumably Oliver’s choice), so that the specificity of his ethnicity disappears. As the creator but visual artist of the series (Rodriguez) notes, “The first big change I wanted to make in the look of the cast was Adam [the main character] and his family. Even though his last name is Hardy, he is Palestinian” (136).

It becomes difficult to “read” this from the text; he simply looks more “brown-skinned” than actually “Arab” (or Palestinian). Meanwhile, Adam’s uncle (Eli) wears a turban, and looks (stereotypically speaking) more like a Sikh than a (presumably Muslim?) Palestinian. Adam’s father, by contrast, seems in spots more to resemble Chong, and not just for participating in a marijuana deal (although obviously this helps). Adding to the confusion (and thankfully you might only notice this after finishing the book, and reading about the character design notes at its end), Rodriguez declares, “I figured an American would not progress as far in science [as a Palestinian]. I mean look at our education numbers” (ibid). One could flip out about this in various ways, but the dominating narrative about Palestinians (as Arabs generally and especially in contrast to Zionist discourse about Palestinians) would generally claim the opposite. The use of “American” here also becomes incoherent, since Adam’s birth didn’t occur outside of the United States (presumably).

The impression I get: Oliver write a narrative about a Caucasian (named Adam Hardy) and Rodriguez prevailed upon him to make a merely visual change that does not actually have an narrative significance in the story. But, just as an African-American playing Hamlet (or a Caucasian playing Othello) has no meaning or support from Shakespeare’s texts themselves, for the audience, the change becomes noticeable and might actually modify the story. Thus, Rodriguez offers the curious statement, “To save the name, which I liked, I figured in this world it’s much like Ellis Island where Adam’s family got a new name once they got off the boat” (ibid). I don’t dispute this ever happens, but if “Adam Hardy” should in some way embody “Palestinian” heritage, merely to add a brown tint to his skin and put a turban on his uncle falls short of signalling that enough, especially when changing his name would have helped immensely.

So, even though I see the change to “Palestinian” as utterly gratuitous (and, in fact, in some ways contradicts the largely standard “boy fiction” narrative that Oliver provides without, however, at all challenging that narrative), it still seems a striking gesture as an intention, albeit a failed or ineffective one.

Changing the Categories of Time and Space

Something similar happens with the deployment of the “core idea” in this series: i.e., how human beings deal with circumstances where conventional physics goes awry (i.e., local gravity reversals, the creation of parallel and temporary bubble dimensions, perhaps even reversals of time’s arrow). Those familiar with Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s (1977)[3] Roadside Picnic or the (heavily narratively modified) film version, Andrei Tarkovsky’s (1979) Stalker, will well know just how strangely and richly one may play with the idea of unpredictable physics.

One pitfall of such unpredictable physics comes up when it starts to act more like magic, although maintaining the distinction may quickly become hairy, if not impossible.[4] Worse, and in contrast to the idea of unpredictable physics as magic, unpredictable physics may also come to serve as a narrative pretence. For example, at one point a colleague tries to shoot Adam and instead of traveling in the correct trajectory, the bullet squiggles around more like the one that assassinated JFK and only hits Adam in the arm. The authors seem to acknowledge the “mere convenience” of this, because Adam reflects how freak physics unpredictably killed his father and now freak physics has saved his life.

The authors avoid, for the most part, sliding toward “magic” because they keep deploying technological devices to deal with stuff. At the same time, this only more and more reinforces the echoes of Ghostbusters, but the problem of narrative convenience (and pretence) remains the more serious problem. The book repeats, more than once, that given the right conditions, the impossible becomes possible. This explicitly counters any magical or supernatural “vibe” the book has, since it specifically cites a rationalistic (or scientific) basis for whatever weirdness happens in the series, whether a quantum tornado, localized gravity fluctuations, or inexplicably zigzagging bullets.

An example from the history of literature and literary criticism points to this as well. A popular distinction in the early Gothic novel in English noted how the denouement of a work would speak volumes. In the Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe, for instance, no matter how many uncanny events occur, in the end—as also in Scooby Doo—an entirely rational explanation appears to account for all of the events. In other Gothic fiction, archetypally Mathew Lewis’ (1796) The Monk, the weirdness simply gets weirder at the end, so that a supernatural explanation (complete or not) thwarts any “rational” explanation. So runs the distinction, in any case. Thus, when the authors of FBP narratively insist that given the right conditions the impossible becomes possible they certainly invoke something more on the side of Radcliffe’s (and Scooby Doo’s) rationalistic explanations. The smattering of exposition about physics also tilts the story more towards “science” than “magic”.

However, this does not explain away the narrative conveniences (or pretences) resorted to. In terms of narrative world-building, this means that the authors seem to supply too little to make a moment like the zigzagging bullet consistent with the rest of the world (rather than just an unconvincing contrivance to save the hero).

I must say: the contrivance that saves the hero may denote one of the Fundamental Laws of (Action) Fiction. In a vast number of books and movies—one may see it to egregious, virtually comical extent in Remender, Moore, Opeña, & Hawthorne’s (2014)[5] Fear Agent (Volume 2)—we see again and again how the narrative bends over backward to accommodate the most unlikely advantages for the hero. Or we’ve all watched as a villain—previously the world’s deadliest sniper—become incapable of hitting the broadside of a barn once he starts shooting at the hero; the moment in Cosmatos’ (1993)[6] Tombstone when Kurt Russell’s Wyatt Earp becomes unhittable makes the an exception that proves the rule.

So, much as making Adam Palestinian generates little more than a cosmetic difference in the series, too much of the world of physics seems just window-dressing (a kind of skin) overlaid on top of the usual stuff. Hence, the recurring impression of Ghostbusters but with gravitational rather than spectral anomalies.

I find this especially disappointing, since the difference than physics (rather than ghosts) purports really does go to changing our fundamental experience in the world. A gravitational reverse doesn’t provide much “drama” or “story” of course—it’s rather like a summer rainstorm, more of an inconvenience, which we weather (with an umbrella or not). But even this minor change to how the world works does require changes in how we arrange the world—cars that don’t suddenly lift off of freeways, for instance. It suggests we might have to rebuild the mobile infrastructure of the world—gravitational stability fields along the highways and sidewalks, &c. Or whatever.

Modifications to—i.e., radical modifications to—our fundamental categories of time and space stand to show us, in fictions, what alternative worlds might look like. In the overwhelming majority of (positively) utopian fictions, the authors imagine how to arrange society so as to maximize whatever they imagine needs maximizing; very much less frequently do they consider the possibility not to change human society but to alter “human nature”. We could solve the problem of human starvation if we redesigned our bodies to take in energy through some means other than nutrients. Fanciful, in principle, but by rejecting the “realism” of things as they seem, we may thus come to see alternatives our categories previously blocked. So too with the premise of this book: by taking up the possibility of fundamentally modifying how time and space behave, we might come to see alternatives we otherwise cannot. But instead of this, the authors short-shrift “world-building” and wind up more often resorting to conventional narrative contrivances. No modification to the fundamental categories of time and space occur when the bullet zigzags, in other words; the authors simply have put their hero in a tight spot and found an easy (unconvincing) way out.

Not Quite Only Boy Fiction

Most of the narrative takes up whole-cloth the tropes of boy fiction: masculine activity (here a group, centring on Adam, but which includes eventually a female) to save the world, with a magical degree of competence by the male (so long as it doesn’t prevent the further development of plot problems), a typically omnipotent villain (at least in these first seven issues) presumably worthy of the hero, and so on. Again, Remender, Moore, Opeña, & Hawthorne’s (2014) Fear Agent (Volume 2) provides a much more grotesque, utterly unself-conscious version of this.

However, here the authors show how a disaster (engineered secretly behind the scenes by the villain) serves as the pretext for the introduction of a bill before Congress that privatizes the previously government-only Federal Bureau of Physics. Besides being a politically astute recognition—or, as Klein’s (2007)[7] Shock Doctrine makes clear, simply a correct understanding of much of what lies behind the corporatization of Congress, whether deliberately (i.e., the wilful 2008 act of financial terrorism by Wall Street and/or 911 and/or Pearl Harbor and/or Halliburton in Iraq) or merely opportunistically (various responses to Katrina)—this also de-centres the typical boy fiction narrative (hero vs. villain) and points instead to the structural features of disaster capitalism that require the sort of disaster the book depicts.[8]

The series has some other subtle gestures of this type but, just as Adam’s Palestinian origins and the environmental modifications of time and space in the story seem cosmetic only, the presence of this “structural feature” in the genre of boy fiction tends to collapse back into mere (boy) hero vs. (personal) villain.

One of the ways this happens: personal betrayal happens at the drop of a hat in this series. At one point, a late-introduced character (Agent Reyes) gets blackmailed in what contextually seems a very contrived way. Imagine if someone suddenly told a nuclear physicist, “We’ve kidnapped you because we have uranium and a nuclear reactor. Build us a bomb!”—as if one may simply acquire uranium and nuclear reactors; Agent Reyes seems confronted by this kind of implausibility. I think the authors want us to believe that these schemers will get connected to the master villain, who presumably has the financial means to acquire the analogues of “uranium” and “nuclear reactors” the narrative requires at that point. Especially since the other main betrayal, of Adam by his long-time partner, hinges entirely on that partner’s co-optation by the master villain toward engineering the disaster mentioned above. At least, that seems what the story entails.

Both of these events really come out of left field, not at all clearly motivated, and more seeming just to provide Michael Bay-like explosions in the story. But regardless, both emphasize the personal corruption of the character who have access (probably because they have wealth) to the corridors of power, and thus the means, for accomplishing their nefarious deeds. The authors depict them as people who take advantage of an innocent system, except that engineering a disaster in order to create circumstances that make citizens willing to accept unacceptable changes (again) points to structural characteristics of our social world (in the US and elsewhere).

Yes, in the several historical settings that Klein identifies as illustrative of disaster capitalism at work (Pinochet’s Chile, the Reagan era in the United States, the manipulation of circumstances post-Apartheid in South Africa and with Solidarity in Poland, the Patriot Act following 9/11, Halliburton in Baghdad, New Orleans post-Katrina, &c), we see individuals working to push terrible agendas, but the very repetition of this pattern by different people in different places points to a structural, not just a personal, aspect at play. And in Oliver, Rodriguez, and Renzi’s book, they provide us a textbook example of disaster capitalism (in this case, where someone deliberately causes the disaster).

But then the narrative loses traction and makes this into the act simply of an evil man, the villain. And we might similarly name names (certainly a plurality, not one) in Pinochet’s Chile, Reagan’s United States, Thatcher’s England, &c., but these villains play the dupe, in a sense, of what the social structural (disaster capitalism) demands of them. The Koch brothers stand as puppets as much as those whose strings they think (and in fact do) pull, victims of disaster capitalism as well, except that their own operatic self-pity and access to power gives them the means to harm multitudes from that vantage point. We see the same self-pity in US discourse, when it stands baffled before the fallen towers and can’t understand, “Why do they hate us?”

Summary

I would like to imagine that somehow the modifications offered to characterization, world-building, and generic aspects of “boy fiction” would better stand up against the “gravity” of the standard discourse these narrative elements (seem, at least, to) oppose. Having recently read Yanow’s (2014)[9] War of Streets and Houses, which may function less as a narrative intended for the “general public” and more as a “secret message” to those in the know, I could tempt myself into believing that a similar “secret message” prevails here, but I can’t convince myself. In some key ways, Yanow’s text provides reasons to suspect and support such an idea—not so much here.

This seems doubly unfortunate, if only because it more clearly signals the opportunity missed than something like the massive piece of dreck like Fear Agent does. Very often, things that seem just slightly wrong can seem more significantly disastrous than something utterly wrong, but in this case I find myself much less irked (by the missed opportunity) than by something like Fear Agent, if only because the latter smugly and ignorantly goes flying by what opportunity it misses without even slightly acknowledging the mistake.

It seems tempting to impute “two minds” on the creative team, i.e., that Oliver (as the principle narrator) has one story to tell and Rodriguez (as the principle illustrator) has sought to slip a different story in, by making Adam Palestinian. But (unless we assume some outside influence on Oliver) the premise of modified time and space and the presence of disaster capitalism in the text originate (more or less) with him.

In the end, boy fiction ,narrative contrivance, and “human” (i.e., White) characterization trump the counter-gestures. Perhaps someone would say to expect otherwise makes me naïve, but let us not forget what the series insists: given the right conditions, the impossible is always possible.

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Oliver, S., Rodriguez, R., & Renzi, R. (2014). FBP : Federal Bureau of Physics. New York: DC Comics/Vertigo, pp. 1–144.

[3] Strugat͡skiĭ, A., Strugat͡skiĭ, B., & Strugat͡skiĭ, A. (1977). Roadside picnic ; Tale of the troika. New York: Macmillan.

[4] Of course, one might cite Clarke here, that “any technology, sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from magic,” but Clarke has it backwards; we should say, rather, “any magic, sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from technology.” If I went back in time to a medieval era with some widget, they might well call it “magic”. But if someone from our future showed up using magic, we would assume some sort of technological explanation must exist. We would fail to recognize their magic as magic—magic being that which operates contrary to the known principles of science. Thus, in the same way, we see that the medievalists make no error to call my “technology” “magic”—because my technological widget does indeed operate contrary to the known principles of explanation available to them at the time. Except that they have the category of “magic” (again, as simply “that which operates contrary to the known operations of the world”), while we don’t. If I get to go back to the eleventh century and insist to the “natives” that they shouldn’t call my widget “magic”, then I have no grounds for insisting to future travellers to my own time that I get to call their widget “technology” (even though it contradicts fundamental aspects of what I understand as science). Consequently, just as naturalistic fiction actually represents a sub-genre of science fiction (i.e., a parallel universe story in which the only difference from our own world centers on the characters of the novel), so we may see that technology represents a sub-genre of magic (magic, again, consisting of that which operates contrary to the known operations of the world).

[5] Remender, R, Moore, T, Opeña, J, Hawthorne, M (2014). Fear agent, vol. 2. Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse, pp. 1–520.

[6] Russell, K., Kilmer, V., Biehn, M., Boothe, P., Burke, R. J., Delany, D., . . . Pacula, J. (1997). Tombstone: Hollywood Pictures Home Video

[7] Klein, N. (2007). The shock doctrine: The rise of disaster capitalism: Macmillan

[8] Engels also said, a long time ago: the middle class has never produced anything except periodic financial collapses (whether on purpose, i.e., Goldman-Sachs & cronies, accidentally, or opportunistically, i.e., every robber baron ever).

[9] Yanow, S. (2014).War of streets and houses. Minneapolis, MN: Uncivilized Books, pp. 1–69.

Summary (TLDR Version)

A book that doesn’t over-reach at all, for once.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Seo Kim’s (2014)[2] Cat Person

No shortage of books about cats and cat people exists, but this book still succeeds in hitting on some laugh-out-loud cat owner moments. A bit unhappily, the cat part of the book gives way to autobiographic details from daily life, which resonate less frequently but still capture at times the texture of everyday life very nicely: making a cup of tea, for instance, being distracted by the Internet and everything else sufficiently that you then have to microwave the tea to warm it up again. Sometimes, a glimmer of usefulness peeks through even.

It’s normal to have feelings, even negative ones. And it doesn’t help to get mad at yourself for having them. You can, however, get made at your feelings, since your feelings don’t have feelings. Fuck you! You’re the worst. And why do you exist?

As a very narrow kind of slice-of-life book, it in no ways falls over itself with unbearable pretentions or stupidities. It makes no grand claims and happily rests, utterly awash, in the quotidian (the stuff of daily life). If it lacks “political significance,” it also at least doesn’t claim any, which one can’t say of a great number of cultural products making claims to “no politics” or “nothing”.

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Kim, S. (2014). Cat person, Koyama Press, pp. 1–144.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Sophie Yanow’s (2014)[2] War of Streets and Houses

The back of the book claims:

An American artist witnesses the Quebec spring 2012 student strike on the streets of Montreal. The brutal police response and their violent tactics trigger and exploration of urban planning and its hidden connections to military strategies. Marshal Bugeaud’s urban warfare tactic s in Algeria, Haussmann’s plan for Paris, planning and repression in the New World; theory and personal experience collide into an ambitious and poetic cartoon memoir.

The book fails to deliver on this, but back-of-book ad-text rarely accurately describes what one has picked up to read. All of the topics mentioned to some extent do appear in the book in what seems (or may actually fall out as) a disjointed, incoherent heap. And as others have observed elsewhere (in different contexts), to put grapes and a cookie next to one another does not invoke (or necessarily even allude to) the Christian last supper, &c. On artistic grounds, one may object that mere parataxis (juxtaposition) doesn’t suffice, but on more general grounds, for anyone even to have the possibility of reading (or misreading or overreading such a juxtaposition) presupposes someone acculturated to that discourse.

And one may certainly read Yanow’s book in such a way; I mean, it has structural features that support and back up such a reading.

Reading the book may very well feel like reading an insider text as an outsider. One finds nothing like Joe Sacco’s painstaking effort to give a sufficient enough framing to understand the nuances of the places he writes about. Here, it seems more as if you must already know the history of the student strike to understand the book. Narratively, it leaps around with very little narrative connective tissue, and what most justifies such a reading comes from Yanow’s art style, which similarly leaves more than usual to the imagination. One might call this minimalism, except that if minimalism aspires to to present the most essential element, Yanow has elected more to exclude key details. How, for instance, does one connect the story from frame to frame; the answer seems that “you already know the story behind the scenes”.

Just for example, at one point the police technique of kettling occurs (in the story) and gets accompanied by an explanatory definition by Yanow. But she does not supply how a resistor deals with, addresses, prepares for, or overcomes kettling. One might call this a lapse—shouldn’t books educate—but to explain the counter-tactic for kettling would make it available for the security forces deploying kettling. She does, for instance, mention that people remove their batteries from cell-phones—something the security forces will obviously learn for themselves (assuming they don’t already know), and which in any case cannot get counteracted simply because the security forces know.

So the book may function as an open, esoteric knowledge—a signal across time and space to those who already know the story and can read between the (scribbled) lines to pick up what they need to know. Some might object that this “locks out” those who might become allies. It seems enough to let people know, “Hey, these things happen. When you see them, you can—like we once did—join in. You learn what and when to do that way, not by ‘browsing’ the history of an action through empty entertainment in a book.”

Such “circumspection” of course serves a protective function as well. For movements subject to police repression, in an era where the media serves as a powerful wing of that oppression, how do you “get the message out” without compromising yourself or making yourself vulnerable? Yanow’s book may accomplish this, and the fact that it fails to satisfying on the level of (coherent) story or (aesthetic) art itself serves to protect against getting taken up by or co-opted by mere lookie-loos on the one hand or nosey security forces on the other.

In any case, one must assume that the panopticon has taken note, so that we may wonder what disinformation (of necessity) it reflects, in order to throw the blood-hounds onto the wrong trails. Once again, what direct actions finally need doesn’t amount to historical publicity after the fact (or accidental disclosures to the security forces along the way) but to inspire resistance. We see at this very moment the resistance in Hong Kong, with barriers and umbrellas and mace and masses, and if you have read Yanow’s (admittedly in ways vague) book, you know unequivocally what you need to do: show up.

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Yanow, S. (2014).War of streets and houses. Minneapolis, MN: Uncivilized Books, pp. 1–69.

Summary (TLDR Version)

When we hear that systemic racism, mass incarceration, global climate change, and the like “are” enormous problems and will take massive, system-wide intervention to address, for the lone individual this may often make him or her feel, “There’s nothing I can do.” And yet, to deny the possibility of doing anything provides exactly the precondition to allow these unacceptable human injustices to continue. As such, we see that “There’s nothing I can do” first and foremost serves the goal of white privilege and global capitalization, because the claim disempowers even the will to believe that we might take action to change things. We should not let ourselves get manipulated by this discourse in this way.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Squarzoni, Whittington-Evans, & Hahnenberger’s (2014)[2] Climate Changed: A Personal Journey through the Science

A rough summary (from elsewhere) just to orient you to the book.

What are the causes and consequences of climate change? When the scale is so big, can an individual make any difference? Documentary, diary, and masterwork graphic novel, this up-to-date look at our planet and how we live on it explains what global warming is all about. With the most complicated concepts made clear in a feat of investigative journalism by artist Philippe Squarzoni, Climate Changed weaves together scientific research, extensive interviews with experts, and a call for action. Weighing the potential of some solutions and the false promises of others, this ground-breaking work provides a realistic, balanced view of the magnitude of the crisis that An Inconvenient Truth only touched on. Climate Changed is printed on FSC-certified paper from responsibly-managed, environmentally-sound sources.

This book covers a lot and Squarzoni and crew have crammed it full of information, in particular (1) breaking down the different kinds of greenhouse gasses and their relative contributions to warming, (2) discussing in a lot of detail the possible extent of average temperature rise over the planet in the upcoming century, and (3) the projected consequences of those rises in temperature.

As far as the first goes, it needs repeating that 97% of climate scientists concur that global warming has a human source. You might also know that only 41% of people in the U.S. “believe” global warming. A point needs making here. First, I don’t think even ONE qualified scientist exists who denies the on-going increase of planetary temperatures, so when we hear that 97% of climate scientists concur, they concur on the anthropogenic (human-caused) source of the current warming trends. Certainly, a good portion of the 59% who “don’t believe in global warming,” many (no doubt) think that scientists question the global rise of temperatures. No qualified scientist could possibly assert that.

To jump ahead briefly—or, rather, simply to skip any summary of the projected ranges of average temperature rise over the next century for now—one of the most significant climate justice points raised in the book centres on the 250 million people liable to displacement (from coastal cities) if this human-caused global warming continues. (Sixteen of the world’s twenty largest metropolises stand within the zone affected by the sea level rise associated with global warming.)

But who will give a shit (outside of those people who have their lives destroyed by industrial-world overconsumption)? In a recent article, Kilgore draws this point when stressing the links between climate justice and anti-mass incarceration work:

The vagaries of global climate change have hit the poor, especially from the global South. Spokespeople from African countries such as the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance, a coalition of over a thousand civil society organizations, are stepping up. Post-Haiyan, nurses unions from the Philippines are joining the fray. Women have also raised the gender dimensions of global climate justice. In its call on members to join the September 21 climate march in Manhattan, the International Alliance of Women stressed, “there can be no climate justice without gender justice.” They pointed out the importance of “acknowledging that women, particularly in the global South, have contributed the least to global warming and degradation of the planet and yet they suffer the most from environmental destruction and unsustainable consumption and production” (¶11, emphasis added).

One cannot seriously dispute this—not, at least, in terms of what climate science has established so far—but Squarzoni and crew also point out (offering a sort of climate version of “the rich get richer, the poor get poorer”) how the temperate zone of the world (which includes the U.S. for now) may actually benefit from global warming, even as things gets even more unbearable elsewhere (i.e., particularly in Africa). I should probably repeat that: climate change may actually benefit (many parts of) the global North, while fucking over even harder (many places in) the global South. Taking this into account, that 59% don’t see global warming (much less see it as a problem) becomes that much more ominous for any sense of global justice.

The narrative woven through the book tracks Squarzoni’s personal struggle with the issue. At one point, he denies himself a trip to Laos (for a conference) that he really wanted to attend. But two years later, he makes excuses to himself and tries to mitigate the effects of his flying about. He gives voice to the notion that, unless everyone else in society also goes along with an individual who tries to make a personal change, then the gestures of personal change have no effect.

I have a further point to make about this, but I need to insert a point here. The notion that personal change has no effect doesn’t bear up under scrutiny. One cannot deny, if I personally make some anti-racist gesture over the course of my day, then systemic racism remains unchallenged at its structural levels. But modelling a change of behaviour to others does (or can) have an effect. It becomes very hard to believe that “it doesn’t make a difference” serves only as a polite fiction for quietism in the face of 250 million people being displaced from their homes around the world. To say “there’s nothing I can do” doesn’t serve any end of social justice, and it rests on a childishly adolescent notion (so it has a certain ring of nobility) that change ever happens “magically”. Just as buying a lottery ticket will make me rich, so I can fantasize that if I just throw this aluminium can in the recycle bin, then no one will drown in India. This foolish, almost petulant, notion of change throws out the baby with the bathwater; no one will believe change can happen if no one models belief in that change. So the observation that we must work for top-down structural change (while certainly true) does not mean, in the meantime, that personal action “makes no difference”. Why will anyone in the industrial world act toward such top-down change if “nothing I do matters”? Behind which lurks the fact that the global North believes (i.e., tells itself, as Squarzoni repeats and climate scientists assert) it will benefit (possibly!) from global warming. I want to repeat that: climate scientists assert, at least as part of their analysis of the situation, that the global North may benefit (possibly!) from global warming.

Thus, over the course of Squarzoni’s narrative, he depicts his struggle at trying to act like a good citizen of the world. But he still shows himself going back on his earlier commitment (not to fly in planes). And he specifically arrives at a point where his mate asks if he plans to end the book on a bummer-point he arrives at. He says he doesn’t, but the last frames show us his wife and him sitting in silence at their computers. He doesn’t refute the point; he doesn’t suggest either of them do anything vis-à-vis climate change, &c. And why should they? They live in a place liable to benefit from global climate change—even though something like 19,000 French people died in record-breaking summer temperatures.

In Kilgore’s article, he notes of both anti-mass incarceration and climate justice work: “The problems we face are systemic. They are not about changing a few laws or regulating a few bad apple corporations, be they oil companies or private corrections firms. The system has to change from top to bottom” (¶8). Michelle Alexander makes a similar point in her (2010)[3] The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness; we must affect a total overhaul of the “system” from the top down. Klein (2011)[4] stresses this as well with respect to climate justice. However accurate, these calls for massive change will serve only as pious declarations if people not only fail to recognize their stake in the matter and generate the necessary political resistance to force such top-down change but also give up (or see in a new way) their self-interest that wants to let the present circumstance continue.

Simon (2014)[5] documents the legal vicissitudes that culminated in the U.S. Supreme Court declaring the overcrowding in California’s prisons an Eighth Amendment violation, and particularly as against human dignity. By this stroke, California did, in fact, finally start to address mass incarceration, which Simon calls the worst domestic human rights violation in the United States since slavery. This represents a moment of “top-down” change; it represents leadership “from above”. IT demonstrates that, albeit slowly and with a lot of work, it remains possible to have the voice of the voiceless (human beings in prison) get heard by the highest court in the land, and prevail.

Certainly, these calls for massive top-down change, whatever they accomplish, will ultimately confront the 250 million (and more) being drowned around the world. Let Africa plummet into a fatal drought, and we may see mass migrations into Europe, just as those fucked over in the South Western hemisphere may have to head for higher ground. Along with a beady-eyed faith in technology to save us (by “us” I mean those in the global North; those in the global South will not generally have the financial resources to extricate themselves technologically) from our own anthropogenic global warming, the changes in climate will have unpredictable effects in our region. The current Ebola crisis in the US may come home to roost. Mosquito-borne illness may become far more prevalent as the swampier environment gives them and other disease vectors more energy to spread.

Kilgore, Klein, and Alexander (not to pick on them, but simply to keep citing them) all acknowledge that piece-meal attempts to address the justice issues they focus on only defer the problem, but we should never call such “Band-Aid” solutions pointless when they address real, human suffering right now. I don’t suggest—and they don’t propose—that this amounts to either/or, but we cannot proceed to carefully by making sure no one takes a call for systemic intervention as a call to sit down and “debate” the solution. Particularly for climate change, each moment of delay actively and further sets the stage for the unnecessary murder of people (through negligence).

Just as those privileged in the United States seem often unwilling or unable to acknowledge how they benefit from that (patriarchal) privilege, such that its banes go on fucking up their lives, similarly those in the global North seem often unwilling or unable to acknowledge how they benefit from climate injustice, such that the degradation of the ecology of their own lives goes on unchecked. People in the United States rank 105th in the world for happiness, and yet we go on imagining that things as they stand should not change in any significant way. Inasmuch as we participate daily in the humiliation of non-white people domestically, inasmuch as we realize (however dimly) that the human rights violations inflicted on others may come home to roost in our own lives at any moment, inasmuch as we recognize (however dimly) our complicity in the further destruction of Africa and the threatened annihilation of 250 million lives (or more) around the world, how can we possibly feel “happy” in that context. And facing these facts, however dimly, how can we feel happy when we get told (or realise, however dimly) “nothing I can do will make a difference.”

Squarzoni’s depiction of this hopelessness, while narratively “realistic” gets undermined by the fact of his book. I would read it as his attempt to embody a particular, familiar sentiment expressed by many people in the Occidental world, but a more cogent narrative would have given more than just his point of view. I don’t think he intends this, but both the support of his wife and how he frames the discourse (about climate change) presented by the climate scientists and economists all serve to support his quietism and the hopelessness embodied in the last frames that show his wife and him sitting uselessly at their (electricity-consuming) computers.

By contrast, I have faith that the rest of the world, suffering under the heel of sand-faced ostriches in the Occidental world, will organise (if only because they have no choice) in the face of this irresponsibly and inhuman applied suffering, and do something about it. Already, vast portions of the world reject the developmentalist framework that the Occidental world keeps pushing, even as the ethical and consequential effects of it get more and more amply documented.

I think of that moment in Schumacher’s (1993)[6] reactionary Falling Down, when the main character finally asks, “Am I the bad guy? When did I become the bad guy?”[7]

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Squarzoni, P., Whittington-Evans, N., & Hahnenberger, I. (2014). Climate changed: a personal journey through the science. New York: Abrams ComicArts, pp. i–vii, 1–480.

[3] Alexander, M. (2010). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness: The New Press.

[4] Klein, N. (2011). Capitalism vs. the Climate. The Nation, 28, 11-21

[5] Simon, J. (2014). Mass Incarceration on Trial: A Remarkable Court Decision and the Future of Prisons in America: The New Press

[6] Schumacher, J., Kopelson, A., Weingrod, H., Harris, T., Smith, E. R., Douglas, M., . . . Forrest, F. (1999). Falling down: Warner Home Video

[7] See also Davies, J. (1995). ’I’m the bad guy?’Falling down and white masculinity in 1990s Hollywood. Journal of Gender Studies, 4(2), 145–152.

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